Power of a nerd herd: Ode to my people

Nerd Face Emoji

It seemed Liv had spent the last eighteen years in search of her people, and in one sudden explosion of fate, they’d all been brought together in this place in time. Her eyes filled with tears as a sudden awareness filled her. They were all nerds.” ~ Danika Stone, All the Feels

The word ‘nerd’ is often given a bad name, being associated with relational ineptitude and being socially outcast. But for me nerdiness is about finding joy in knowledge: attaining it, interrogating it, producing it. Immersion in it. Consuming, curating and creating.

I love it when a nerd is positioned as a central figure of a story. One example is astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, the protagonist in Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian. At one point Watney, stranded on Mars alone, yells, “Hell yeah! I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” Watney embraces his nerdiness, calling himself a “space pirate” and invoking the metaphor of Iron Man when he catapults himself into space near the novel’s end. The story arc of the novel, and the Ridley Scott film in which Matt Damon plays Watney, is carried by this nerd-hero and his melding of science knowledge and affable humour. Watney is the epitome of the lovable nerd.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on those people in my professional and personal spheres who make me feel like I’m at home when I’m with them. Many of these are fellow nerds. That is, we connect over our mutual love of something geeky (reading, writing, teaching, research, literature, coaching, art, science, story). We have a shared joy in finding things out and in doing purposeful work.

These are family and friends who, while I was completing my PhD, asked me about my research and listened to my responses. They are colleagues who get excited about a project we’re working on. Who co-plan courses, lessons, cross-curricular opportunities and assessments with a fervent enthusiasm and a twinkle in their eye. Who understand, or at least watch with knowing amusement, when I get excited about a new academic text or education book arriving on my desk (O, Book Depository, my faithful friend!), or about a paper being published. Who smile patiently when I cyclone into their office full of ideas busting to get out of my head or words tumbling out of my mouth. They are the past or present principal who continues to show an interest in and support of my work. Who sometimes says ‘yes’ and sometimes challenges me to think and do more.

They are the mentor or coach who waits while I work through my messy thoughts and helps me to arrive at cleaner ones. They are the colleague and bloggers who trust me enough to listen to their unformed thoughts or read their still-emerging ideas.
They are the professional friend who coaches me on Voxer or takes a phone call to help me work through a professional problem or issue. They are my PhD supervisors who gave me the space to explore some off-the-wall ideas, while challenging me to construct airtight rationales for non-traditional approaches. They are the well-known academic who shares their expertise via social media, flattening hierarchies and transgressing time zones. They are the conference-goer who stops me in the corridor after my presentation to talk for an hour, before moving our conversation to the long lunch it deserves. They are the co-author I’ve never met face to face, or spoken to on the phone, but with whom I’ve collaborated, co-written, and whose thinking and writing has pushed mine into new crevices.

They are my kind PLN who engage thoughtfully with me on Twitter, respond to my blog posts and meet up with me in cities around the world. Twitter is full of generosity. In my PhD acknowledgements, I thanked family and friends who had shown an interest and those in the social media world who had provided an antidote to isolation when I felt alone in my own head in the PhD wilderness.

Those people who feel like my tribe provide a space that is at once safe and challenging, celebratory and questioning, inspiring and industrious. It’s a place I can be excited about an idea, a text or a possibility. I can geek out and nerd it up without risking an eye roll or a snigger. I can share narrow interests and pursue broad passions.

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections, our people, our herd, our tribe, our squad. We can pay forward and give back. We can support each other’s nerdy excitement. In the karmic circle of knowing, learning, doing, being, leading and caring, we can share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories and celebrate others’ milestones.

Thank you to my fellow nerds who give me a sense of belonging and allow me the luxury of knowing that my personal brand of nerd has plenty of places to call home.

Achievement unlocked: I think I am Nerd Face Emoji.

Achievement unlocked: I think I am Nerd Face Emoji.

 

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Reflections on researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

I’ve landed back in Perth after a whirlwind trip to Melbourne for this year’s researchED conference. This post is an attempt to unravel the tangled threads in my head, after what was a big day of thinking, listening and talking.

On coaching: Our panel

Being on a panel with Corinne Campbell, Chris Munro and Jon Andrews was the highlight of the day for me. That included not only the panel presentation but the opportunity to be in the same place, at the same time, able to flesh out our ideas about coaching together (as well as plenty of other educational issues).

Founder of researchED, Tom Bennett, saw the four of us working together early in the day and joked that it was like four Avengers coming together in one movie. That struck a chord with me, because we are four individuals deeply committed to making a difference in our own contexts, in four different Australian cities. But we’ve come together across social media time and space to collaborate on #educoachOC, a monthly Twitter chat on coaching in education, which aims to centralise, clarify and tease out the global conversation around coaching in schools. I met Corinne and Chris for the first time at last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, the first Australian iteration. I hadn’t met Jon until yesterday, yet we’ve been collaborating for months, and talking about practice, writing, leadership and coaching.

So getting together with my fellow Avengers was like landing in my nerd heartland for a day. We are, however, less about avenging and more about advocating for supporting teachers and trusting in their capacities for improvement. Coaching was revealed in the panel discussion as an enhancement and growth process, not a deficit model for fixing underperformers.

Our panel seemed well-received, and I learned from my fellow panellists as we covered what we mean by coaching, why each of our schools adopted coaching, what it looks like in each school, the impacts we’ve noticed, and the broader implications for coaching in schools. We explored issues of trust, implementation and mandation. We considered the conference theme: how coaching might fit with ‘working out what works’. On the one hand coaching does not prescribe ‘what works’ to coachees, and yet coaching has been shown to work. It is a researched but contested approach to learning and growth, with coaching models varying in intent and execution. Coaching is about practitioners being given the time and space to work out what works, for them, in their contexts.

On research ethics: My presentation

My individual presentation was on a topic I later described on Twitter as the unsexy undergarments of research: ethics. Necessary and crucial, but often viewed as unexciting. I looked at ethical considerations and decision making, for teachers researching their own schools, using my PhD study as an example.

I shared this quote from Helen Kara’s book Creative research methods in the social sciences:

Ethics should underpin every single step of research, from the first germ of an idea to the last act after dissemination. And ethical problems require ethical decision-making – which allows for creativity.

Here, Helen reminds researchers that ethics is creative problem solving. It does have to be well-considered, systematic, respectful and just (see the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research), but it doesn’t need to be tedious.

I outlined the ethical challenges in my PhD, and the ways in which I grappled with those and made decisions. My operationalising of ethical solutions included writing information letters and consent forms; using an independent interviewer to interview teacher participants (and a rigorous approach to protecting teacher identities); designing deliberate interview protocols; drawing data together into composite stories; and utilising metaphor to protect participants while making interpretive meaning.

I discussed the benefits and limitations to being a researcher embedded in one’s own context. Below are the implications and questions I ended with.

Evidence-based practice in education

Among other presentations, I saw two on using evidence and research in schools, one by Gary Jones and another by Ray Swann. What I enjoyed about both approaches to evidence-based and research-informed practice in schools, is that they promoted valuing of not only the ‘best available evidence’, but also the wisdom of practice of teachers and school leaders. That is, they valued tacit knowledge and the expertise that comes with lived experience. They also acknowledged the value-laden and culturally-influenced nature of using evidence in schools. I think these are important layers to understanding what works in schools, and how schools can work towards finding what is shown to work in other contexts, and how they might therefore pursue what works in their own.

What I enjoy about Gary’s work is that he provides explicit frames for applying systematic approaches to evidence-based practice. He manages to make sense of the complexities of evidence-based practice, in order to communicate it with clarity, and in a way that educators can understand and apply. I recommend reading his blog and his handbook for evidence-based practice.

The researchED Avengers?

Thinking back to Tom’s analogy of the Avengers, the crowd at researchED is kind of like a room of fantastical superheroes. Here were close to 200 educators—teachers, school leaders, researchers and professors, each with their own individual gifts, talents, passions, stories and arenas of expertise—spending their Saturday dedicated to learning, connecting and talking about working out what works in education. There were some great questions from the audiences in the sessions I attended. Those that got me thinking included:

“Who decides what the ‘best available evidence’ is and how do they decide?”

“Where should coaching happen and how long should a coaching conversation be?”

“If you were start your research again, would you make the same decisions?”

There were also great comments, questions and provocations from those educators on Twitter who were engaging with the conference hashtag from afar, adding another level of richness to the online and offline conversations.

When Dylan Wiliam popped into the speakers’ dinner, it added a further layer to discussions. Here was another educator coming out to talk education on a Saturday night, after coming straight from presenting at a national conference, and before getting up the next day to present all day again. For me, it was great to be able to discuss his new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning, the use of the Danielson Framework for Teaching, and performance pay.

Tom describes researchED as built on and powered by (I’m paraphrasing and embellishing here) blood, sweat, volunteers and fairy dust. That is, those supporting this conference, around the world—including participants, presenters and schools—care deeply about education. These are people dedicated to making classrooms and schools better places for better learning.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conversation for the second year in a row. I’ve been left with plenty to think about.

_____________________

And some more reading …

You can see my reasons for attending researchED Melbourne 2016 here.

Jon Andrews has shared his reflections on Melbourne’s researchED here.

Pamela Snow has written this post about her presentation at yesterday’s researchED on justice re-investment.

Greg Ashman wrote this post about his day at researchED.

Gary Jones wrote this post reflecting on Melbourne’s researchED.

Susan Bradbeer has written this post about her experience of researchED from afar, as someone who followed the conversation on social media and the blogosphere.

Tom Bennett had some reflections after the Melbourne event, published here on the TES blog.

You can see my reflections on researchED Sydney 2015 here.

Spider-web connectivity: Technology for networked learning

Nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle. ~ E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

tangled webs of connectivity; image from Helen Kara http://helenkara.com/2015/07/28/data/

tangled webs of connectivity; image from Helen Kara http://helenkara.com/2015/07/28/data/

This image was passed from Dr Helen Kara to Dr Naomi Barnes, after I had challenged Helen with an image for the #blimage (blog+image) blogging challenge (see how messily interconnected that is?). You can read Helen’s post here and Naomi’s post here. You can see my first #blimage post, with an explanation of the challenge, here.

Helen’s image spoke to me. It reminded me that one of my research participants used the metaphor of the spider’s web to describe the school as organisational web. It is reminiscent of the symmetrical black and white webs in my mandala colouring book. Mostly, it speaks to me of connectedness in education, in our schools and classrooms, but especially through technology and social media.

So the image forms the basis of this post about technology which connects.

The labyrinthine tangle of webs are like snow-flake-like in their perfect imperfection. The wintery stems provide angular anchors for the fragile delicacy of the web strands which stretch and overlap. Some strands extend long distances, while others are strung tightly together. There is symmetry and asymmetry. Strength and vulnerability. Flexibility and rigidity. Beauty and disorder. A clamour and a stillness.

These dewy webs evoke my experience of the professional connections I see and experience through technology and social media. My journey through various tools of connectivity as an educator has been one mirrored by others. Often I adapt before educators in my own school environment, but after those in the global spheres. As this blog approaches its first birthday, I am reflecting on how blogging has transformed my use of social media and my connections with others.

mandala sunburst

mandala sunburst

Twitter has been a place of learning for me since 2009. As with most educators, I began lurking in the background, figuring out what might be in it for me, or consuming information. I moved on to curating others’ content, and then participating in education chats. That is where I stayed for a number of years, although the more chats with which I engaged, the more people with which I connected. The chats were a place for me to participate in conversations. In fact, my favourite part of being in a Twitter chat is when a small group goes off piste into their own tangential conversation. These are moments of connection and engagement, which are epitomic of Twitter’s rhizomatic chaos; its tangle of webs. In one Twitter chat Adriano di Prato and I came up with an accidental concept of ‘leaning environments’, showing the unexpected possibilities of connecting via social media.

(I enjoyed this recent New York Magazine article about why the messiness and “vast confusion” of Twitter should be celebrated.)

Last year, I began this blog as an experiment in blogging, and as a way to log and record my fellowship experiences in New York. My continued blogging has shifted the boundaries of my self and my connections.

Not only does exploring my thoughts and ideas in 600-1000 word blog posts allow me to thrash out and clarify my thinking in more than 140 characters, it also opens up conversations with others who might want to engage with me or with the content of my posts. It is this opening of conversation which has expanded me and my network. My spider-web tendrils reach out and curl together with others’. Some connections are tentative while others are strong. Some traverse long distances while others are at arm’s length.

mandala web

mandala web

As an individual, my blog feels like an extension of myself. Colouring outside the lines of my demarcated self, I share parts of my story, my thinking, my experiences, and my teaching, researching or writing practices. These tendrils of me reach out and entangle with the labyrinth of connection and conversation in the blogosphere. I respond, and am responded to. And so I become absorbed, in part, into the often unpretty cacophonous jumble of thoughts, hyperlinks and voices.

More recently, thanks to the encouragement of Andrea StringerI have started using Voxer and I’m loving the immediacy and personal, conversational, collaborative nature of the medium. Right now, I’m involved in different professional learning groups and a doctoral researcher group. Valerie Lewis, who I’ve connected with on Voxer, in this blog post calls her Voxer PLN her ‘Vox Squad’, a kind of A-Team of professional learning and solidarity (‘I pity the fool who doesn’t Vox!’). I’ve introduced Voxer to my students as a collaborative tool for group work, and to my team of coaches as a tool for our collective growth and the ongoing refinement of our practice.

To finish this reflection on connectivity, I’ll leave you with a very different web, as a contrast. Below is a picture I took in Richmond Park when I lived in London. A solitary dew-jewelled web at sunrise. This image doesn’t speaks of connectedness in the same way that the first image of webs does. It shows a beautiful but lonely structure, tenuously clinging to the solidity of the fence posts.

Richmond Park spider web at dawn

Richmond Park spider web at dawn

Which would you rather be? The solitary web or a web in a mess of other webs? A lone voice or one of a cacophony of voices? Are we better alone or together? Can our individual voices be heard in amongst the noise of social media?

if the web were perfectly pre-set,

the spider could

never find

a perfect place to set it in; and

if the web were

perfectly adaptable,

if freedom and possibility were without limit,

the web would

lose its special identity. ~

A. R. Ammons

* Note: this is what happens when I am in the middle of tough PhD work. Lyrical, metaphorical musings and colouring-in become my creative antidote to the hard systematic work of thesis revision.

Powerful & unforseen consequences: our butterfly impacts

#leaningenvironments - evolution of a new edu-revolution?

#leaningenvironments – evolution of a new edu-revolution?

 A cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland—a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on the Earth—can bring to a standstill the aerial traffic over an entire continent. ~ Slavoj Žižek

With the start of the Australian school year almost here – a year in which I am working to implement the teacher-growth model on which I have been working for two and a half years – I have been thinking about what it is that makes a trusting, impassioned, vibrant community of continuous learners.

Ok, as both the subject of my work and of my PhD research, I have been doing more than thinking about this. I have read close to 300 references and written about 85,000 words around effective school change, what makes effective leadership and what kinds of learning teachers find transformational. I have blogged briefly about some key ideas to anchor school change, about the importance of embracing discomfort for growth and about my own learning environments.

Tonight I was participating in the #aussieED Twitter chat when Australian educator Adriano Di Prato tweeted that ‘developing a leaning environment that is welcoming, warm and safe is a fundamental aim of every classroom.’ Now, I knew that Adriano meant ‘learning environment’ when he typed ‘leaning environment’ in a fast-paced Twitter chat, but it got me thinking: How are schools ‘leaning environments’?

It reminded me of psychologist and professor Ellie Drago-Severson’s notion of ‘holding environments’ (which I wrote a bit about here) in which she asserts the importance of teachers feeling ‘held’ by their learning and working environments, especially if positive change is to take place.

It reminded me of Costa and Garmston’s notion of ‘holonomy’ (explained in the Cognitive Coaching course material) in which the parts (individuals) and whole (organisation) are interdependent.

It reminded me of this great moment last year when a group of commuters on an Australian train platform used their leaning-together momentum to tilt a train and free a man trapped between the train and the platform.

So I tweeted back about ‘leaning environments’, and all of a sudden we were back-and-forthing about how the word ‘lean’ might apply to school environments. Would it be about individuals ‘leaning in’ to the community, to opportunities, towards each other? Could it be about students, teachers, parents and leaders ‘leaning on’ or ‘leaning alongside’ or ‘leaning with’ each other? Might it be ‘leaning out’, away from those things which should matter less but sometimes drive schooling (high stakes testing, grades, league tables)?

the power of a Tweeted typo

the power of a Tweeted typo

Fellow edu-Tweeter Melissa Daniels noticed the banter and asked whether this could be “the education revolution that started with a typo?” leading to another discussion about innovation, revolution and the evolution of ideas, all in 140 character bites.

Tweet @debsnet @DiPrato @PensiveM

This was an invigorating discussion for me, not because I thought it was to be the next big thing in education, but because of the thrill of the unsurprising serendipitous connections, conversations, ideas, thinking and challenges that come out of conversations and connections with like-minded like-passioned others. Here was a vibrant online environment of trusting, holding, leaning (in, out, on, with, alongside), impassioned, creative, continuous learners.

It also reminded me of our unforseen impacts. We never know the impact of a conversation, a word, a decision, or a typo.

I have noticed this in my self, in conversations or moments which stay with me until an idea bubbles to the surface. I have noticed it in my work with teachers and students, who often take some time to realise what moments or relationships have shaped them. I have noticed it in my PhD research participants, many of whom told me that the very act of being interviewed for my research changed something for them, opened something up, surfaced a reflection or became a moment of learning.

So, don’t ignore life’s typos. Even the seemingly tiniest things can have powerful & unforseen consequences.

You never know when you might uncover the next revolution.

Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result. ~ Kevin Michel

Montenegro by @debsnet

Embrace your discomfort zone: bubbling in the crucible of growth

Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. ~ Sigmund Freud

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

Scholarly literature and the blogosphere are saturated with thoughts around motivation, growth and what it means to learn, lead and be the best we each can be. Some of this is around what qualities, attitudes or behaviours we need in order to weather life’s difficulties while continuously growing our selves.

Skill sets & mindsets for discomfort and growth

Carol Dweck’s much-touted work on mindset argues that our self-conceptions frame our life paths. If we perceive ourselves as having fixed immovable traits, then we are less likely to be resilient and positive in the face of challenge. Those who perceive that their talents and abilities can be developed are more able to see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.

Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching model would suggest that we need to help individuals to reflect upon their own goals and experiences, figuring out their own ways to get better while assuming that each individual has the capacity to do exactly that.

In their recent book Uplifting Leadership Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle and Alma Harris talk about a yin-yang balance between positive energised leadership and tenacious hard work. They talk about disciplined innovation and feet-on-the-ground (rather than pie-in-the-sky) creativity. “An uplifting mindset and skill set keeps your head up high while your feet stay firmly planted on the ground.” Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris articulate the need for leaders to have visions and dreams alongside the determination to struggle through hardship and adversity. They remind us that “without dreams, profound human and social change would scarcely be possible” but that we need inspiration that incites action, daring and doing. Leaders, then, are grounded visionaries whose diligent exertion drives imagination and change.

Environments of support and challenge: being held while being pushed

In her work on adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson talks about organisations as ‘holding environments’, spaces in which adult learners feel ‘held’ and which provide both high support and high challenge. When I spoke with Ellie this year, she emphasised the need for schools to facilitate the development of self-authoring individuals, able to take charge of their own journeys of transformation.

Charlotte Danielson, too, talks about the need for support and challenge for teacher growth. Teachers need an environment of trust, she says, in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry. As I explained previously in my reflections on hearing Charlotte speak at the Australian Council for Educational Leadership 2014 conference, the need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been pivotal in my school’s work to provide a setting for the transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Enter the discomfort zone, the birthplace of rainbow growth

So while we need to feel supported enough to take risks, we need to be daring enough to be vulnerable, uncomfortable and daring. Margie Warrell calls this the ‘Courage Zone’, the place beyond comfort (but before terror and paralysis) in which risk taking and growth happens.

In my own experiences I have found this discomfort zone to be a tipping point for my own growth. Often it is in the squirmiest spaces of discomfort that my breakdowns become my breakthroughs. As I illustrated (literally) in the drawing above, my discomfort zone is a place of dark messiness, but from which rainbow-like growth can emerge. The comfort zone might be all white fluffy clouds, affirmations and unicorn-blessed pixie dust, but it also tends to be a space of inertia.

My classroom is a place in which my experience and comfort level are best served by being challenged to try new things like a recent term without marks or grades. And while my online PLN and at-school professional friends provide me with support, it is getting out of the supportive echo chamber and into dissenting debate which pushes my thinking and incites my learning.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of my growth this year have been in my PhD work which often involves wrestling with my thesis. Support and criticism from my supervisors help me to work tenaciously through difficult research and writing problems to find solutions and make progress. As an experienced educator but novice researcher, it is interesting negotiating a space in which my learning curve is dizzyingly exponential. The best thing about grappling with and through discomfort is the unrivalled feeling of satisfaction at solving, innovating or realising learning.

Who, where or what makes you feel ‘held’ and comfortable? How at ease are you in your discomfort zone? Is it a crucible of growth for you? What do you find when you stay there and thrash around for a while?

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching …. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape. ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Social media for teacher professional learning

Teaching is forever an unfinished profession … never complete, never conquered, always being developed, always changing. Grundy & Robison, 2004

One thing that is emerging from my PhD research into teacher learning is the power of social media, Twitter in particular, as a professional learning tool and community.

For educators and researchers, Twitter means we can find like-minded individuals, even when those in our own organisations don’t share our passions or practices.

Social media connects us outside of our physical sphere – our schools, districts and countries – to professionals, thinkers and writers around the world who generate and share information, ideas, practices and activism which inspires, incites or affirms us.

Imagine my delight when global school change titan Andy Hargreaves responded to my first (ever) blog post. Here was social media linking me to one of education’s thought leaders whose work shapes my classroom teaching, my school leadership practice and my PhD research.

In 2013, Kathryn Holmes, Greg Preston, Kylie Shaw and Rachel Buchanan published a paper which found that “Twitter is a valuable conduit for accessing new and relevant educational resources on the internet and also as a viable means of social support for like-minded educators. The cost effective nature of the microblogging platform ensures that it can act as a medium for sustained professional development, while leaving the individual participants to control and take ownership of the learning.” So Twitter can be socially and intellectually supportive, and it can facilitate and drive sustained engaged learning which is owned by the individual.

Jon Tait explains Twitter’s role as professional development platform in his blog post and has designed this infographic to summarise Twitter uses for teachers.

JonTait_TwitterTeacherInfographic

As I move for the first time from content curation to content creation (this being my second-ever blog post), the functions of the professional social media world and those who engage in it are a point of reflection.  Who will read my words and see my images? Who will interact with my thinking and add their own? How might social media support, connect and educate me?